March 7, 2011  |  Library and Archives, Viewpoints
Smelling the Books

Rachael Morrison. Photograph by Michael Schmelling

Having a job as Senior Library Assistant at The Museum of Modern Art Library has been a big influence on my artistic practice. I use the library for research and inspiration, and as a site of investigation. In early 2010, I began the performance “Smelling the Books“, which consists of me smelling every book in the MoMA Library collection. This performance was recently highlighted in New York Magazine as one of the many reasons to love New York.

My performance started with the first call number in the Library of Congress classification system AC5.S4 1934, Sermons by Artists, and I will smell until I reach ZN3.R45, Bibliography of the History of Art. I document the performance in a ledger, recording the call number, title, and a description of the smell of each book. The goal of this personal olfactory exploration is to foster a discussion of the future of print media, the ways we read, methods of classification, and the way in which smell is entwined with memory.


haha Im so glad im not the only one that smells books,my friends find it very wierd .

I LOVE this performance….brilliant…emotional.

This is so eccentric and quirky that it is charming. Does this mean that in addition to aromatherapy, we will now have aromaliteracy?

I do it too!!! I just love how books smell!!!

I love the smell of books … but am allergic to them.

Come visit us at our library! We actually smell pretty good

Yey!! I can come out of the… bookshelf! phew! ~:-)

That’s part of the charm of reading a real book, way better than e-books!

I to love the spell of books, and inner pages, it reminds me I’m holding a cohesive treasure of artistry, intellect and definable literary genious. I never forgot my first one; Clifford the Big Red Dog!

My friends always make fun of me for not succumbing to what they view as the inevitably- books via a machine. No need to mention names. My rebuttal is always the same; real books have real history, real weight, and of course the delicious smell of age. This made my day Luck Lady!

You’ll want to check out this comic:

You’ll want to check out (no pun intended) this comic:

Epic! This is in fact an actual part of my own job. Not only a cool performance, but also useful if in fact the book needs some type of preservation work… yah mildew…

I’m kind of bummed I didn’t think of this first!

When in (Hunter)college I would spend hours glancing through their collection and smelling the books. I don’t know what you called the red dust but it had a sweet smell.

Man, I wish someone in Los Angeles would smell books. Then there would be a reason to actually live there!

How do you handle new acquisitions?

I have a follow-up piece in which I dip every book in piss with ants.

Proust would be proud

I would love your job

What a wonderful performance. I love the smell of books. The older the better. And books with glossy pages smell different from standard paper. I am sure you are making similar observations, but its nice to find a fellow-sniffer. Too me nothing will replace the full tactile experience of actual books. Keep smellin’.

Very interesting. I’ve done it but never thought that much about it. I love the smell of books, maybe that’s why I work at a library. The digital book idea leaves me cold.

I think kindle e-books never smell good as real printed books!

I love the smell of books. And the idea that it may help keep books around makes me smile.

I like to smell some books, but some that have lived in smokers home are too gross to sniff. I don’t think this is art.

Wow, I think I have even further confirmation for wanting to be a librarian!

Wow! As an author, I’ve heard that some books just smell on their own! Now they have help! I’m screaming!

This is wher our ticket monies go? Talk about waste and diverting attention away from art and into frivolous decadence. Get a life. Really.

art defines who we are, explores nature, and searches for god. Living in an enclosed and seperated world of books, manmade symbols that evolve adn have ot meaning in themselvs is but therapy, not creative art.

I love the smell of books. That new book smell is completely intoxicating. Old books are just as good—comforting, homey.

For people who like the library smell, this is a really great perfume that I swear I am not affiliated with in any way!

A friend forwarded this to me knowing of my love of the smell of books and what a delight to find so many others who appreciate smelling books. I loved this! And I attached a link to a blog I did on the same subject.

I hope at least a few of the books are scratch and sniff.

I think the best part of this article is the name of the photographer… “Photograph by Michael Schmelling”… LOL!

As new books are added to the collection are you going back to smell those too? I hope so!

Oh, thank heaven, it’s not just me! I love the smell of old books, newspapers, printed matter. Even a new book has something, then is better when it’s re-read. But most old pieces have a good, sturdy smell; not moldy or mildewy, just old. Some have additional scents; as noted above, smoke, mold, sometimes really weird things like acidic smells. Maybe the paper? Anyway, I stumbled on this from a Facebook post. Thank you.

I love the smell of library books in the morning! And books in any book store, or flea market or anywhere else. I am so glad it is not just me.

Anyone ever swoon at the old-wood smell of the big reading room at the NYPL? So divine. Of course, maybe the smell is ink, paper, mildew AND wood.

Well……….. I just ordered the perfume! Wonderful article. There’s nothing like the smell of a book – old, middle-aged, or new!

I can tell if a book is published in the US or in another country. Books published in England and Hong Kong have an especially wonderful aroma…sort of a mix of tea and spice. All my life I received packages for birthdays and Xmas from English relatives. Books from there and Hong Kong have that same wonderful smell, and bring back happy childhood memories.

She just may get a carcinogenic high as a consequence of inhaling all those printing chemicals … or multi-ramous mycological mucal invasion … or a dust-mite attack … or clogged nostril intake as a result of sniffing in thousands of loose paper and cloth fibers and dislodged ink dots …. Is there such a thing as limbic overload from associative overexposure? And there are smelly books as well.

In one library I used to work in we received magazines from India. They all had that nice smell of old paper and incense.

I ALWAYS smell books! Love it!

When comparing print books with eBooks, smell is the first thing mentioned. The second thing is touch.

Since I have a leather cover on my Nook, my Nook smells like leather. But for most eBook readers, eBooks are about solving problems in acquiring more, carrying around more, storing more, holding more (for those with carpal tunnel wrists and arthritic hands) and reading more book-length text than they can print books.

Two years ago, while getting my MISt, we went on a fieldtrip to a rare books library. We were given the chance to look at an original folio of William Shakespeare’s, the first thing I did was smell it! I am pretty sure out of everyone I was the only person that did this.

This is why I love the Internet: there’s a community for everybody! I’m a book smeller too.

We get the isochronous donations of Octavos Quite Odiferous at our Library. Smelling an entire collection sounds to be a rather courageous
undertaking to me indeed! Is it really Art or just amusing?

Really? And this is a paid position? Sounds less like work and more like OCD

I love this idea! Most of all, though, I’m with Alan’s comment. How did you find a photographer named Schmelling??! Too perfect!

It is no wonder local and national government cut library budgets. It is such a waste of resources to smell books. Get rid of the sniffer and put more books on the shelf or make more ebooks available.

I, too, have loved to smell books since early childhood (remember the grade-school smell of “mimeographed” paper?). However, if you have a big, sebaceous nose like I do, you must be careful, or you’ll put oily smudges on the creamy pages of those expensive monographs!

I like that the name of the photographer happens to be Michael Schmelling.

that is the dumb dumb dumb dumbest thing i have ever read. i have read so really dumb stuff but people calling this art, emotional and so on is sooooo dumb.

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